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Police Expert Says 'Excessive' Force Against Floyd Wasn't The Only Option

Updated April 7, 2021 at 2:41 PM ET

A police expert says former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used excessive force against George Floyd when Floyd died in police custody last May. The officers had other options, including simply talking to Floyd, according to Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert at the Los Angeles Police Department whose testimony continues on Wednesday.

"My opinion was that the force was excessive," Stiger told the jury on Tuesday, after reviewing the incident through police body cameras. He is appearing for the prosecution as a paid expert.

Stiger said he based his opinion on the "objective reasonableness" legal standard for the use of force and by weighing the officers' actions against the seriousness of the crime and the suspect's behavior.

Chauvin, who pinned his knee into Floyd's neck, is facing murder and manslaughter charges over the man's death. The case is being closely watched, after months of nationwideprotests against police brutality and racial inequality.

As Nelson began his cross-examination of Stiger on Wednesday, he established that Stiger has never testified as an expert in state or federal court. But Stiger also said that the Los Angeles County Superior Court has previously qualified him as an expert.

Nelson also said that of Stiger's 461-page report, roughly 26 pages reflect his opinions and the rest are a list of the more than 5,000 documents or records he was given to review before the trial.

Nelson referenced the Graham v. Connor ruling, noting that the Minneapolis police manual's reference to the ruling isn't limited to the three factors discussed earlier. Nelson notes that it quotes from the ruling:

"The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of the reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

The citation continues, Nelson said, by acknowledging officers must make "split-second judgments" in tense situations. He says their decisions must be considered using the "totality of circumstances."

Noting that Stiger said on Tuesday that the amount of force used on Floyd was "excessive," Nelson asked, "That's not the standard, is it?" The standard, the defense attorney said, is whether the use of force is "objectively reasonable."

But under follow-up questions from the prosecution, Stiger said the force used on Floyd "was not objectively reasonable."

Nelson also noted that when Chauvin arrived at the scene, he was operating under the information available from the dispatch call: that two officers were struggling with a large man who was under the influence.

"You would agree ... that sometimes the use of force, it looks really bad, right?" Nelson asked.

"Yes," Stiger answered. But he agreed that sometimes such instances can still be lawful.

Nelson later displayed photos of the officers restraining Floyd, noting that one image suggests most of Chauvin's weight was on his right knee – on Floyd's back – rather than on his left knee, in Floyd's neck area.

Nelson also displayed two sequences of images – one from a bystander video and one from an officer's camera. From the sidewalk, Chauvin's knee appears to be on Floyd's neck, he said. But he added that from the closer view, Chauvin's knee appears to be on the base of Floyd's neck. Stiger agreed to those descriptions.

In the prosecution's follow-up questions, Schleicher asked about the risks of positional asphyxiation, and whether pressure on the neck or the body raises that risk.

"It's the pressure on the body" that makes it harder to breathe, Stiger said. He also agreed that both of Chauvin's knees were on Floyd's body for the full 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

Floyd lost consciousness as police restrained him on the street outside of Cup Foods – the convenience store where he was accused of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. When Chauvin arrived, Stiger said, he saw then-officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng struggling to get Floyd, who was in handcuffs, into the rear seat of a police SUV. Chauvin moved to help them.

"Mr. Floyd was actively resisting, moving around ... clearly he didn't want to be back there," Stiger said, adding that Floyd was pleading with officers and saying he couldn't breathe.

Changing their plan, the officers pulled Floyd from the vehicle and he wound up on his knees in the street.

Up to that point, Stiger said, the officers' actions could be perceived as reasonable. But he said the officers could have continued to talk to Floyd rather than use force, noting that Kueng seemed to have built a rapport with Floyd.

As Floyd was placed facedown on the asphalt, he kicked his leg at an officer — the only act of aggression Stiger saw in that phase of the struggle.

Chauvin and the other officers restrained Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Stiger said. Referring to images from the scene, the use-of-force expert noted that at one point, Chauvin was placing most of his body weight on Floyd, with his right knee in the man's back and his left knee on Floyd's neck.

In addition to using his knees on Floyd, Chauvin is seen using his hand to put pressure on Floyd's hand or wrist, in an apparent "pain compliance" technique, Stiger said. "The handcuffs were not double-locked," he added, meaning the restraints could continue to tighten on Floyd's wrists during the struggle.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked what happens when a subject in that situation can't comply with officers' orders.

"Then at that point, it's just pain," Stiger replied. He then added that according to the recordings, Chauvin did not stop using the pain compliance technique.

The Minneapolis Police Department's manual cites the Supreme Court's landmark Graham v. Connor ruling of 1989, which established the reasonableness standard. The manual, seen in court Wednesday, lays out three components: the severity of the crime; whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to officers' or the public's safety; and whether the suspect is actively resisting or trying to flee.

Asked if Floyd posed a threat when he was being restrained, Stiger said, "No, he did not."

Stiger noted that Floyd was handcuffed in a prone position and was not trying to resist or assault the officers.

Another factor, Stiger said, was the number of officers at the scene: five, including four city officers and one Park Police officer.

Three of the officers were using their body weight to control Floyd, he said.

After referring to police use-of-force policies, Stiger said that in his opinion, "No force should have been used once he was in that position."

He also said that the dangers of positional asphyxia have been known to police, as a person can die while handcuffed on their stomach or chest.

Schleicher then turned to the bystanders who were watching and recording the officers from the sidewalk. Chauvin's defense attorney, Eric Nelson, has repeatedly brought up the idea that the crowd of around a dozen onlookers posed a potential threat to the officers.

Schleicher asks Stiger if he has dealt with hostile crowds before while handcuffing a suspect. He says he has, with people throwing rocks and bottles at him and his colleagues in Los Angeles.

Referring to footage from the scene outside of Cup Foods, Stiger said the videos did not show anyone throwing items or attacking the officers.

There was foul language and the officers were called names, he said. But Stiger adds that the crowd didn't affect his analysis because "I did not perceive them as a threat." Most of them, he said, were showing "their concern for Mr. Floyd."

Stiger also said officers can't ramp up the level of force they're using on someone solely because of a a third-party's actions.

Noting that Chauvin underwent some 866 hours of police training, Schleicher asks if the officers should have been able to cope with the distraction posed by a crowd of bystanders.

Stiger said, "Absolutely."

On the body camera recording, Chauvin is heard asking the two other officers whether they have a hobble device in their squad vehicle. Stiger described the device as a leg restraint that is often used to keep people from kicking out the windows once they're inside a car. The fact that the officers didn't use the device suggests they believed Floyd was starting to comply with their orders, he said.

Stiger is a 28-year veteran of the LAPD; he told the jury that he joined the police force after serving in the Marines. As part of his appearance for the prosecution, he reviewed videos from the scene as well as the Minneapolis Police Department's policy manual and training materials.

Stiger told the jury that he is currently on vacation from his job in California. He charges a fee of $10,000 to serve as an expert witness, with a trial fee of $2,950, he said.

Stiger testified after the MPD's own use-of-force instructor, Lt. Johnny Mercil, said Chauvin's use of force on Floyd was not a technique Minneapolis police officers are trained to use. Officers are not trained to use their legs or knees on somebody's neck, Mercil said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.